How skateboarding gives Joburg kids a place of refuge

Johannesburg - Skateboarding has become a "safe space" for at risk youth in Johannesburg.

“What we’re trying to do here is give these kids tools to think for themselves,” one of the Skateistan educators Alan Jones tells News24 during a visit to the Skateistan school in Doornfontein, in the centre of Johannesburg.

He said the aim of the non-profit organisation – which runs similar programmes in Afghanistan, Cambodia and Germany – was to provide a safe space for at-risk youth who come from low income households to have a place where they could learn and play.

“There is such an imbalance and disparity between the rich and poor [in South Africa], so I suppose Skateistan wanted to come here and try and empower the kids,” Jones says.

He said the programme is open for kids between five and 17 years old.

One of their goals was to see every child at the school growing confident and becoming comfortable in their own skin, he says.

“A lot of them were very shy initially, so that’s a shift which we’ve seen with them. Now they have the confidence to be outspoken, they are no longer intimidated by who is in front of them. They can really be in their own skin and be comfortable in that, so it is very important, that is what we are trying to instill in them.

“One of the most important things is confidence, just building enough confidence for somebody to stand in front of a classroom and say something,” Jones says.

Nine-year-old Siyabonga lives with his family in a block of flats across from the skate school. He says he joined the programme in January and has fallen in love with skateboarding since then.


“I hadn’t skated before, now I want to skate and learn what I can and then I can be a top skater,” he says.

He enjoys learning new tricks, and when they aren’t playing, Siyabonga says he enjoys learning about things such as the solar system, how to use electricity and what he wants to be when he grows up.

When he is at school during the week, he is always looking forward to coming to the skate school with his friends after school. His parents are also supportive of his new hobby, he says.

“They are happy, they say they want to come and see me skating.”

Skateistan also has a special project dedicated to empowering young girls into improving their skating skills. They have three sessions a week dedicated to only girls, to ensure this happens.

“If you look at skating, it is more of a masculinity driven sport and we wanted to challenge that assumption and say we actually can empower girls as well.

“So it’s a way of promoting girls to skate without any fear because if you do skating sessions with boys and girls, boys are more dominant. They always want to tell the girls how to do it all the time, instead of letting the girls figure it out themselves.

“So for the girls to actually learn, when you put them together they get a chance to play and fall among each other. There is more comfort, so there is more comfort in numbers. They also support each other through that,” Jones said.

Sbonga and Owami, who are both 11, agree and say they are improving their skills so much that they feel they can take on any of the boys.

“I can’t even count the tricks I can do,” a confident Owami says.

The two also enjoy the other perks that come with the skating school, they say.

“Sometimes they help us with homework, sometimes we learn things like planets, how to take care of yourself and human rights. It’s fun and exciting and we learn new things.”

The organisation was currently busy with a #GiveHerFive fundraising campaign for the December period, to raise awareness about how safe spaces, sport, and education help girls gain the skills and confidence they need to become leaders.

Just like Siyabonga, the girls also joined the programme at the beginning of the year. They found out about it when a representative came to their building and encouraged them to join.

“They came to our flat, they told us to come and join them because it is fun and we will learn new things. Our parents were so happy that we were going to learn new things,” they said.

Before the programme began, the two said there was nothing much to do after school except to go home and watch TV or study.

“It helps us with a lot of stuff, like our homework, we learn new things, we skate, it feels exciting. Now there is a fun place to study,” says Owami.

In trying to teach the kids how to be independent thinkers, Jones says the major contributing factor is minimising the time they spend in front of a TV.

“We watch so much TV that we cannot think for ourselves and that is very dangerous. So if we can, [we should] get the kids to turn away from the TV or minimise it if they can, and get them to engage within themselves and the community,” he says.

As a resident of Hillbrow, one of the inner city's most notorious neighbourhoods, Jones admits that there aren’t many areas where children can go which are safe enough to play in.

“I know safe spaces in these areas are a huge issue, I live in Hillbrow and when my niece comes back from school all she does is sit in front of the TV because it is not safe outside.

“So we are trying to create safe spaces and perhaps we can begin a dialogue amongst each other in terms of how, collectively, we can come up with a new way of getting the kids to feel safe in the concrete jungle where there are no spaces, and when they don’t feel safe.

“How do we do that, perhaps dialogue is the first option to start from,” Jones says.

Visit Skateistan on www.skateistan.org to learn more about the organisation and its programmes.



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